A Stunning "Piano Lesson"
By David A. Rosenberg
There are the watermelons. There is the doily.
Above all, there is the piano.
This is “The Piano Lesson” at Yale Rep. Under the stunning guidance of director Liesl Tommy, August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning play is, by turns, very funny, very moving, very frightening.
One of a series of dramas in which Wilson chronicled the African-American experience through decades of the 20th century, “Lesson” takes place in 1936, in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and which became one of the industrial north’s lure for black southerners seeking their fortune.
From Mississippi, Boy Willie has arrived at the house where his uncle Doaker lives with niece Berniece (Willie’s sister) and her 11-year-old daughter Maretha, not to stay but to re-possess the prized piano that had been in the family for generations. On the instrument is carved the history of their Charles family, from the time that Doaker’s grandmother and her son (his father) were
exchanged by the slave-owning Sutters for the instrument.
For Berniece, the piano represents the past she cannot let go of, a family heirloom imbued with mystical powers. For Willie, it’s a means to an end, the third part of a trifecta that includes money he has, plus money he will get by selling a truckload of watermelons and selling the piano, both symbolic of their hated ”darkie” past. Willie’s indifference is seen also in the respectable table doily which he keeps kicking onto the floor and Berniece keeps picking up.
Deaths figure prominently: Three years after her husband’s death, which Berniece blames on one of Willie’s schemes, she still mourns. And the heir to the Sutter property where Willie’s ancestors toiled and which Willie now wants to buy, fell (or was pushed by Willie) into a well.
Yet the play teems with life. And it’s marked by Wilson’s eloquent language. (“Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for 17 years. For 17 years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in, mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it.”)
Much of the patois takes getting used to and this is a long (three-and-a-half hour) evening with some slow spots in the first part of Act One. But, once it gathers steam, “Lesson” socks across powerful scenes between characters, grounded in reality despite the presence of ghosts and culminating in a hair-raising ending.
Keith Randolph Smith banks Doaker’s flames, making the character’s outbursts rock with seething danger, while Charlie Hudson III is an endearing Lymon, Willie’s friend. As Avery, the impatient preacher who wishes to marry Berniece, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson is a man not only of the cloth but flesh and blood, while Charles Weldon is exuberant as Doaker’s musical brother. Melenky Welsh is charming as Maretha and Joniece Abbott-Pratt is lively as a happy hooker.
But it’s the spark of LeRoy McClain’s Boy Willie and Eisa Davis’ Berniece that ignites the evening. Their yin and yang values, their fierce devotion to their cause and loyalties give “Lesson” its jolt.
On Dede M. Ayite’s impressive set, as lit by Alan C. Edwards and costumed by Jennifer Salim, the actors make even the metaphysics believable. And, when sound designer Junghoon Pi gets those ghost noises going, hold onto your seats.